Friday, March 26, 2010

Surprised By Joy

Hey, guys, Serena and I both read something on the Iditarod reading list! Totally by accident! And I'm working late and need a diversion, so.

If you're feeling cynical, E.M. Forster isn't for you. But if you're feeling depressed about how cynical everybody else is, oh my god, Forster is going to change your tiny world. He is the kindest author I've ever read. He finds something to love in every one of his characters, something worthy in them, and he emphasizes that. They could be stupid or brutish or cruel or histrionic, Forster doesn't care. He cares that they're stoic, or that they aspire to be more than they are, or that their antics are heartfelt.

I'd been thinking for a while about people who make everyone around them feel special, and the idea that that kind of attitude is really fake. My conclusion is something like this: it's not fake, because it's not pretending people are special in ways that they aren't special. It's finding what's special about every person, and concentrating on that, concentrating on what they do best or what makes them worthwhile. I formulated this theory before starting Howards End, and it's pretty much all I've been able to think about while reading it.

Well, that and "Really, Eddie? ANOTHER description of the English countryside? Jesus."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tiny Resurrection, For All You RSS Readers

So it's a good thing the internet exists, because I think if I blather on about the Elgin marbles to anyone else within swatting distance, I might be in trouble.


Quick recap: in 1816 or thereabouts, Lord Elgin of Britain got the then-rulers of Greece, the Ottoman Empire, to let him chisel a bunch of marble slabs off the Acropolis in Athens. He also snagged some sculptures and stuff, all ancient, gorgeous marble work. All from the Parthenon. Important: Though they are called the marbles, they are not marbles that you keep in a bag but instead big works of art made of marble.

Now Greece wants them back. Really, really bad. This is a nationalist thing, and having your greatest art treasures stolen by colonial invaders can't be great.

So, in today's installment of IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS WITH KNOWLEDGE OF ESOTERIC CRAP, here's a summary.

GREECE: Give us back our damn marbles.
BRITAIN: Oh you mean the Elgin marbles?
GREECE: We call them the Parthenon marbles.
BRITAIN: Well, good then, but they're in our lovely British Museum and they're quite happy there. Millions of tourists. Come visit if you like, but wipe your feet.
BRITAIN: It's not as if you have a decent museum to put them in anyway. They'll just sit by in some potty old shed and no-one will ever look at them.
GREECE: Well, you ... hmm. Hold on.

GREECE: OK, how do you like THIS museum?!
BRITAIN: Hm. It's pretty nice actually. I like the glass bits.
BRITAIN: Nope. Can't.
GREECE: I hate you.
BRITAIN: If we give you these, you'll want all the others and then the only thing we will have is that stupid Banksy that he put in here for a joke.
GREECE: I am going to hold my breath until I die unless you give me the marbles.
BRITAIN: But, really, it's just going from one museum to another, so what's the difference?
GREECE: Hey, Egypt, let's go steal Westminster Abbey and see how they like it.

There was an actual demonstration in Athens. A PROTEST. With SIGNS. All about how THEY WANT THEIR ART BACK.

I think that's pretty great.
I don't know what they should do about the marbles, but 1) The British Museum didn't give back works they got that were looted by Nazis, so they won't be swayed by emotional appeal, and 2) The Greeks are being very pointed with their museum -- they use the marbles they have left and fill in the rest with these stark white plaster castings of the real things, with the color distinction yelling "LOOK WHAT SHOULD BE HERE! BOMB BIG BEN."

Monday, April 6, 2009

There's no need to get so angry...

Remember this post from a few months ago about Virginia Heffernan's entirely mean and uncalled-for "review" of Sarah Vowell's latest book? The review that basically read: "Whatever, the book sucks, but OH MY GOD YOU GUYS I HATE SARAH VOWELL SO MUCH. SO MUCH. WITH HER STUPID LIBERAL POLITICS AND HER STUPID ACCENT AND HER STUPID BEING REALLY SUCCESSFUL AND LIKEABLE. FML."

Well, now I think it's clear: Virginia Heffernan needs to go to anger management. Cause she wrote another article — I'm really not sure why the New York Times keeps publishing these rants, but okay — about how much she hates her iPhone.


In other, less obnoxious news, I am sort of thinking about going to grad school a little bit. More on that later.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Well... balls.

"Emory University plans a 40 percent cut in the number of new Ph.D. students it will enroll this fall. Columbia University is planning a 10 percent cut. Brown University has called off a planned increase in Ph.D. enrollments. The University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments that have admitted doctoral students every year shift to an every-other-year system. These cuts are exclusively for Ph.D. programs."


In other news, I think I need to shift my focus from the Iditarod to actual grad school preparation. It's getting to be about that time. Will you still love me if I blog about GRE study and program entrance requirements? That seems so boring. But I don't have enough time to do all these different things.

Damn it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I missed this when it was published two weeks ago, but hee!

But Blumenthal is definitely wrong. Madoff would be in the 8th circle, the one punishing fraud.
“It’s not a poem about ‘you did this, you get this,’ ” Mr. [Robert] Pinsky says. “It’s about the mystery of how you hurt yourself. It’s like the Talmud says: the evils others do to me are as nothing compared to the evils I do to myself.”

It's certainly lending Madoff's crimes a grand scale, isn't it?)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

blogging FAIL

I don't even use Twitter, but this is about where we're at right now:

I've been re-reading a bunch of cantos in the Musa translation, because it makes so much more sense to me. It's time-consuming, though, and hasn't much inspired me to blog.

I've also been talking to people about grad school and trying to do some basic research. I feel so unprepared for all of this. I've heard of people quitting their jobs just to prepare for grad school. Yeah, Things I Absolutely Cannot Do.

I have some neat grad school-related things that I might get to do for my job, though. More on that soon, I hope!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Post-It: This is ridiculous

Depressing news, in Fiona's ongoing life crisis:
Even a chimpanzee can make a plan for the future. But I can't seem to.

Now that you're depressed, check this out.

Roberto Benigni reads Dante aloud as a performance piece that he's toured around Italy. It will make everything better:


I was going to title my post, "This has officially become ridiculous," but then I saw that Fiona had scheduled a post with the title "This is ridiculous" for the same day, so I guess that's out. No matter.

Let me tell you what is truly ridiculous: I have, on my person, four different translations of the Purgatorio.

I know. This is out of control. But you see, as I mentioned last week, I'm having trouble with Merwin's translation. There are no summaries/arguments at the beginning of the chapter, and the notes are few and terse. I just feel like I'm missing so much.

So I took a lunch break and went to the used bookstore by my office. Now I have the Ciardi translation, because I know for sure I can follow it; the Mandelbaum, because as we all know by now, I like Mandelbaum; and, randomly enough, the Musa, because it's a Penguin edition with excellent notes. (That guy on Amazon seems to like him, too.)

I should not be spending so much money on used books, especially the Purgatorio. No one even likes the Purgatorio! But there's no point reading it, I don't think, if I can't make heads nor tails of it. And we'll be done with translations soon enough.

(The bookstore also had the Palma Inferno, and I took a moment to read some of it, and it was just beautiful. Oh well.)

I'm looking forward to getting a look at these translations and letting you know how it goes. I've made painfully slow progress with Merwin, so I'm hoping I'll be able to read faster now, too.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Time does not bring relief; you all have lied"

Daylight saving time gets me thinking about clocks and hours and all that business by which I live my life.

Timing is extremely important in the Divine Comedy too. There have been a hundred million commentaries written on the thing, and somewhere along the way people figured out not only the exact dimensions of Hell, but the exact position of the stars in the sky at any given moment. Each canto has a specific time attached -- Dante's journey through the afterlife is meticulously timed.

So I started to

They didn't even have mechanical clocks in Europe until what, 1270? 1280? And the Comedy was written less than 50 years after that, so timekeeping wasn't all that important. They certainly wouldn't have had clocks in houses -- just church bells, set to local noon. Because it didn't matter what time it was anywhere ELSE. Each town just set the clock to noon when the sun was highest and then forgot about it. I think in a lot of the Western World they would still have been using temporal hours* instead of 60-minute hours.

So I asked Robert Hollander about it** and he referenced a passage from Paradiso:
Then, like a clock that calls us at the hour
when the bride of God gets up to sing
matins to her bridegroom, that he should love her still,
when a cog pulls one wheel and drives another,
chiming its ting-ting with notes so sweet
that the willing spirit swells with love,
thus I saw that glorious wheel in motion,
matching voice to voice in harmony
and with sweetness that cannot be known
except where joy becomes eternal.(X.139-148)

He then cited another scholar who claims this is the first literary reference to a mechanical clock. Apparently this scholar (Scott) thinks Dante might have seen one in Milan. Obviously this passage isn't about a clock in a room, since that would be ridiculous. It's probably about a town clock tower.

Another theory I have is about Italian time, which is a system of 24 hours beginning at sunset. Apparently it was useful for people whose day of work needed to end at sunset because they didn't really have access to artificial light. First of all, it was used in Italy until the 1700s, and second -- look at the Comedy! It makes sense! He starts at sunset in the dark wood, near to the time an Italian hour cycle would be starting!

So that's my theory. But really I'm just struck by how odd it is that commentators have been so hung up on the timing in Dante, when exact time mattered so little in the 14th century.

*OK, so you tell time by putting a stick in the ground and watching the shadows it casts based on the position of the sun. When the sun is right overhead, it's noon. So originally the way to divide time into hours was to see how long it took for the shadow to get a certain amount longer. Thing is, at different times of the year, that would take more or less time. That's a temporal hour -- it varies in length depending on the time of year.
**So last week I sent a fangirlish "I just love your Dante translation" e-mail to Robert Hollander, the translator I liked so much. Ever since then we've been corresponding back and forth about Dante -- he's really nice and helpful, and likes the idea of the Iditarod.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Sometimes I feel like the Melvin of the Literary Iditarod.

Sometimes? Always.